Rebels reach north Syria after south evacuations
MOREK, Syria – Hundreds of rebel fighters and their families arrived Saturday, July 21, in northwestern Syria after their evacuation from a southern province under a deal with the regime, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent said.
Air strikes by regime ally Russia, meanwhile, on a southern jihadist holdout killed 6 civilians, a Britain-based monitor said.
The evacuations from Quneitra province, which borders the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, came after a Russia-brokered agreement struck earlier this week for rebels to cede the territory to the Syrian regime.
Rebel elements who opposed the territorial handover were given the option to leave.
On Saturday afternoon, state news agency SANA said preparations were underway to ferry a second wave of people from Quneitra to the north of Syria.
In the morning, a first wave of around 50 buses carrying opposition fighters and their families reached the Morek crossing on the edge of northwestern rebel-held Idlib province, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
Near the parked buses in Morek, a woman and 5 children waited by a cluster of small suitcases, the eldest among them carrying bottles of water and a blanket.
Men with light weapons slung on their backs shared a bite to eat and some water as they stood around waiting. Several wore scarves wrapped around their faces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the first convoy to reach Morek transported around 2,800 people.
They were to be transferred to other buses run by local NGOs, before traveling further north to temporary camps in rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the Britain-based monitor said.
"More than half of the evacuees are women and children," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
'6 dead' in air strikes
The evacuations follow a deadly regime offensive on Quneitra, a thin, crescent-shaped province that lies along the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.
The Russia-negotiated rebel surrender also saw fighters hand over heavy and medium weapons and the return of government institutions to the area.
Syrian forces launched their southern offensive on June 19, targeting the province of Daraa on the border with Jordan, before turning their attention to neighboring Quneitra.
With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, President Bashar al-Assad's troops this month captured more than 90% of Daraa, where protests against him first erupted in 2011.
Regime forces backed by Russia have continued their campaign in Daraa, aiming to retake areas still controlled by Islamic State group jihadists, which are not party to the Russia-backed withdrawal deals.
On Saturday, Russian air strikes killed 6 civilians in that ISIS-held pocket, the Observatory said.
The deadly raids came just a day after strikes in the same area took the lives of 26 non-combatants including 11 children.
On Saturday, clashes between loyalists and jihadists in the area also killed 13 regime fighters, including 8 in a car bombing.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with a brutal government crackdown on protesters. – Rappler.com